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KAI RYSSDAL: Whatever weakness the economy's showing, one thin slice of it is doing just fine. Luxury goods continue to sell. On both the consumer and corporate levels. Godiva Chocolates was sold off last night for $850 million. Maybe the new owner can come up with line of mints for hotel pillows. Because the top-end hotel market is booming with plush one-upmanship. Alex Goldmark looked into reports of six- and even seven-star hotels.
ALEX GOLDMARK: Type "best hotel in the world" into Google and you find links describing the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. It's got a Rolls Royce chauffeur service and nightly pyrotechnics on a man-made, private island. It's also got a seven-star rating, according to some reports.
BRIAN GULLBRANTS: If your knob goes to 10, people want to say they turned it to 11.
That's Brian Gullbrants, head of operations at Ritz Carlton and Spinal Tap enthusiast. Twenty-four of his company's hotels get the traditional five stars. He says many of his younger rivals like the Burj Al Arab like to claim they're a cut above.
GULLBRANTS: I think it's healthy. We certainly welcome the competition, and it continues to push everybody forward and up.
It's pushing Gullbrants to recruit celebrity chefs to open restaurants on site. And the five-star Moscow Ritz boasts free caviar and a vodka sommelier. Gullbrants says consumers' expectations of luxury are changing.
GULLBRANTS: It's not about going to the white tablecloth restaurant with the waiter in the tuxedo and the white glove. More often now we see customers that want to relax and enjoy luxury on their terms, not the industry's terms.
So new hotels from Miami to Shanghai are doing their best to anticipate customers whims. They're offering amenities that didn't even exist before, like surround-sound iPod stations, and a technology butler to help you use them. Shane O'Flaherty of Mobil Travel Guide says hotels want credit for these kinds of innovations. And they often give themselves an extra star for providing them.
SHANE O'FLAHERTY: We call them self-ratings, meaning that a hotel just calls themselves, like, I'm a six-star or I'm a seven star.
Mobil Travel Guide invented the star-rating system for the U.S. back in 1958. Michelin and AAA also rate hotels on a five star or five-diamond scale.
O'FLAHERTY: Of the 8,000 hotels we rate on an annualized basis, there's only 37 five-star hotels. And there's only 117 four-star hotels.
To get the top rating, a hotel needs to score 90 percent on a checklist of 750 different criteria. Like, staff speak clearly without using slang, and call guests by their names. Cleanliness and decor count too. No hotel has ever gotten a perfect score.
O'FLAHERTY: Six-stars and seven-stars out on the marketplace are really just hype for the consumer.
What? No credit for a cabana butler to wipe my sunglasses?
O'FLAHERTY: ... Or the person who puts lotion on butler.
O'FLAHERTY: You know, those are nice things to have at a property. Yet, for us it's all about how the consumer feels.
Some of the new luxury travelers really do feel better with a gold-framed television, 13 different pillow options and a bathroom the size of a Cadillac. But both O'Flaherty and the Ritz's Gullbrants agree what five star customers really want is personal attention.
GULLBRANTS: It's really giving the customer what they want, how they want it, before they even know they want it.
I want some of that.
In New York, I'm Alex Goldmark for Marketplace.